CHURCHVILLE, N.Y. -- Not again.
For the second day in the row, I was hiding in a golf cart in the woods of a perfectly wonderful public course in upstate New York, seeing rain drops instead of watching putts drop.
The round the day prior at Greystone Golf Club in Walworth, a suburb southeast of Rochester, turned out to be a stunner after a stinker of a start. At the fifth hole -- about the time the golf course kicks into high gear with a series of up-and-down holes -- the skies cleared, allowing my host, Rod Christian (founder of the New York Golf Trail) and I to enjoy an empty course all to ourselves.
This afternoon didn't look so promising. The 11th green at Mill Creek Golf Club had become a swimming pool. A faucet of rain poured for 15 straight minutes, trapping my threesome under the trees. I couldn't even retrieve my kick-in birdie putt (convenient timing for my only birdie of the trip, right?). Then, suddenly, within minutes of the storm passing, the sun grew so searing hot that the entire place dried out completely. The golf gods and Mother Nature had resolved whatever their quibble was.
My good fortune was the final surprise on a wonderful four-day adventure exploring the region's golf scene, a major stop along the New York Golf Trail, a collection of many of the finest public (and a few private) clubs in the state.
Rochester is ripe with golf, from arguably the most decorated major championship venue in America outside of Augusta, the East at Oak Hill Country Club, to fine public courses sweeping across rolling farmland and glacier-cut hills in the picturesque countryside.
Day one: Victory-less in Victor
My home for the entire stay was the refined Woodcliff Hotel and Spa in Fairport, roughly a half-hour from the Rochester airport. It's not a traditional golf resort -- probably the biggest knock against a trip here -- but the U.S. Ryder Cup team stayed here in 1995, and so did a few players who teed it up at the PGA Championships at Oak Hill in 2003 and 2013. I'm no pampered millionaire with a pure putting stroke, but I still enjoyed its comforts.
Ravenwood Golf Club in nearby Victor gets the nod as the region's best "country club for a day." The clubhouse is large and inviting, the course conditions superb and the staff super friendly. There's not a bad hole in the bunch. It's infinitely playable and a past host of the New York Men's Amateur Golf Championship in 2003 and 2009 and an annual American Junior Golf Association event.
Playing the private Cobblestone Creek Country Club in Victor that afternoon was just a bonus perk. After lunch in the clubhouse, I squared off against three sweet-swinging members tuning up for the club championships from the tips. I was no match on a target course filled with big carries and plenty of water. In the carnage of lost balls and double bogeys, I realized how much camaraderie I'm missing by playing public courses with strangers all the time. Membership does indeed have its privileges.
Day two: A taste of the Finger Lakes
My only regret after playing at Bristol Harbour Resort the next day was that I didn't spend the night at the resort overlooking Canadaigua Lake, one of the famed Finger Lakes. These 11 skinny "finger" lakes form a tourist destination of wineries, restaurants, water sports and hiking/biking trails, stretching from the south of Rochester to Syracuse.
My three playing partners were staying in a family cabin on the lake and looking forward to the "Ring of Fire" ceremony that night, when residents light flares at dusk along the water's edge.
"People love the Finger Lakes because it's close to civilization, but it's so naturally unique," said Peter Schenck, my cart partner from East Rochester.
That naturally unique look comes to life on the back nine of a classic Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed golf course at Bristol Harbour. While the front nine was open and fairly tame, the back nine navigates hills hidden in narrow corridors of trees. Golfers who don't fasten their seat belts and hit straight shots on this golf roller coaster will watch their scores soar. The best views of the lake come back at the lodge. I munched on lunch on the back patio to savor the scene.
Day three: Grey skies at Greystone
There were at least a couple times Christian and I almost quit on our round at Greystone. After all, the local weatherman had called in that morning to cancel his tee time. We wisely didn't. Greystone has some special holes.
The par-3 sixth plays over a pond to a devilish green. Another wetland crosses the 11th fairway, bothering both the tee and approach shots of this tough par 4. The round dramatically builds for the final hole crescendo. The elevated 18th tee looks out upon the water hazard guarding a massive double green of no. 9 and no. 18, set below the clubhouse. It was a nice finish on my favorite course of the trip.
Day four: A 36-hole finale to remember
I promised the member who invited me that I wouldn't write anything about my experience at Oak Hill. I was just another guest at the only club in America to host the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup, the United States Open, the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Senior Open and the Senior PGA Championship. Obviously, it was a treat, even if major championship venues on club championship day tend to grind 10-handicappers off their game into divots.
Maybe that's what made Mill Creek that afternoon so enjoyable, despite the storm: wide fairways; manageable rough; greens that aren't glass. It felt good to be competent with a club again.
Mill Creek, designed by Michigan-based architects Ray Hearn and Paul Albanese, uses the highest point in the region to its advantage. The vistas from the clubhouse look beyond the ninth and 18th greens to a horizon of farmland and forest. The first and 10th tee shots off the ridge are clearly highlights, although the drivable eighth hole is another keeper. Hearn and Albanese probably went overboard with a few too many split fairways, especially on the two confusing tee shots of the uphill 11th and 18th holes. Considering I had a par putt on the last green to break 80, it's hard to get overly critical of such a fun course.
There's so much golf in the region I didn't sample two other area courses on the New York Golf Trail -- the private Mendon Golf Club and public Wayne Hills Country Club. Christian says the Rochester/Finger Lakes loop is the most popular destination of the six he sells.
"It's about the value, because of the number of high quality public courses," said Christian, who promotes Lake Placid, Saratoga, the Hudson Valley, Cooperstown and central New York as well. "The rates are a steal."
For more information on packages and courses, visit www.nygolftrail.com.